May 13, 2009

Jordanian Minibus and Taxi Antics
Al-Beidha, Jordan

Eager to get out of the town turned hotel gift shop we'd been forced to stopover in, the family and I made our way to Aqaba's primary bus/minibus station (just a congested street next to small pair of parking lots with vans).

Minibuses bound for Petra leave when full between 7am and 2pm; the exact departure times depend on the number of passengers. Sometimes travelers end up waiting an hour or two, which often longer than the actual travel time.

The fare should cost three Jordanian dinars per person (so sayeth my resources), but true Middle Eastern fashion, the thawb-garbed driver was stubbornly refusing to go below JD6 (US$8.50) after coming down from an even higher number.

"But we're friends of a Bedouin, and will be his guests," Tatiana revealed in a final attempt to lower the price.

"Oh? Who?" Retorted the Arab.

"We're going to be staying with Nawaf," Tatiana said confidently (pulling the name of one of three CouchSurfers we'd been corresponding with off the top of her head, but not dropping the name of the one we'd be staying with today).

Although I was standing a few feet away from the exchange, ready to move onto another vehicle, the attitude change of the driver was immediate. Suddenly we were given the proper 3JD/person price, shown a space in his mostly-full van, and engaged in friendly small talk. Rather pleased with ourselves, it wasn't more than 10 or 15 minutes of waiting before the van departed.

Taxi to The Bedouin Village of Al-Beidha

Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) is the name for the collection of haphazardly constructed concrete hotels, restaurants and shops that sprung up on the hills several kilometers above the entrance to Petra. The vast majority of tourists traveling to Petra will sleep in Wadi Musa, or in one of the multi-star luxury hotels on the road into town from Ma'an.

According to official statistics, the annual number of visitors jumped from 200,500 in 1994 to over 800,000 last year. As a result, Petra often exceeds its UNESCO-recommended daily capacity of 2,000 visitors, sometimes witnessing consecutive days of 4,000-plus tourists.

Many locals are aware of tourists flocking to Petra with big wallets and little time, and this is one of the few places in Jordan where you'll get consistently overcharged.
-Lonely Planet, Jordan

As the only foreigners traveling in the van from Aqaba, we were alone when were dropped at a desolate piece of asphalt some distance downhill from the center of town. The end of the line was Wadi Musa's bus depot, but there wasn't much activity or onward transport to be found.

We needed to get in contact with our Bedouin host, Talal, living 10 kilometers northeast from the city. In his invitation to us, we were instructed to call once we were in town, and take a taxi or perhaps get picked up.

Hungry for cash, a taxi driver idling in the shade jumped on us after we harshly brushed off another driver in his car proposing an insultingly lofty amount for his services. Needing a phone, the driver was quick to offer his mobile (hoping that doing as much would ensure a ride in his vehicle).

It's exceedingly easy to lose control of situations like these. There's pressure on your side communicate effectively and efficiently over a less than desirable connection (as to not rack up cell phone charges for both parties), and make a decent first impression with someone who isn't a native English speaker. You'll want to simply hand over the phone to someone that can speak Arabic, but you can't. If you're borrowing a phone from someone who has a financial interest in you (stands to make money off of you), greed will invariably lead to manipulation, deception and/or excessive compensation for its use.

Most of these Bedouin CouchSurfers say to arrive at their village and simply ask for them by name (as everyone supposedly knows everyone else), and as it turned out, the 29-year-old Talal wasn't able to pick us up or even give us the proper amount we should pay for a taxi to his home. Talal's rather new to the CouchSurfing scene, but certainly not the area, leaving Tatiana and I in an awkward position of not really knowing exactly where he lived, or how much we should pay.

However, we did know that there was a village between Wadi Musa and Talal's village, and that a ride to this town cost 2JD (about $3).

Talal gave the driver directions (since I sensed he couldn't do as much with me in English), and the negotiations began.

The driver wanted the equivalent of about $14 to drive us the 6 miles, which was absurd. He finally went down to $11, but wasn't budging from that point.

Tatiana and I feel that taxi drivers the world over are pretty much the scum of humanity, so we generally don't have a problem blowing them off or fighting back when we're being insulted or abused with their prices and scam tactics (such rigged meters, driving the wrong way or the scenic route).

Placing Tatiana's backpack on her shoulders, we grabbed our baby and gear and turned our backs on the man, intending to find a ride elsewhere. His punishment for being a greedy prick was no money from us, and no compensation for the phone call.

Sweating in the midday heat as we walked, there was the beep of a car horn behind us. At the top of the hill we'd just climbed we were confronted with another driver who'd watched the scene and was offering his services… for 3JD. …Done.

The man drove us out of Wadi Musa, but when we reached a village and started asking around for Talal's residence, he discovered that our host lived in the next village down the road—we'd stopped at the town between the two (that should've been a 2JD ride).

Naturally, our driver had simply assumed this was where we wanted to go, and as we really had no clue ourselves, and once again gave up Talal's mobile number.

After getting off the phone he demanded more money, and wouldn't move the car unless we agreed. Tatiana and I discussed it in Spanish (as we normally do when speaking in front of people trying to get money out of us), and eventually got the man to get the vehicle moving. It was just another three or four miles further down the desert road, and she and I quietly agreed that the driver's phone call and the extra distance were probably worth another 2JD.

We pulled into a small community of homes—simple desert-colored dwellings of cinder block and concrete. Talal wasn't home to meet us—he was out—his father and the women of the house were the ones to greet us.

I pulled our gear out of the taxi and placed it next to the entryway to the home, while handing Tatiana a 5JD ($7) note as I finished up. I heard anger and arguing from the driver as Tatiana tried to pay him. He wanted more money, and she certainly wasn't going to give it to him.

Ignoring the commotion at my side was one of Talal's sisters, who instructed me to bring the bags inside their home. Tatiana tells me that as I'm doing this, the father says he'll make up the difference between what the driver wants and what we're willing to give him.

Tatiana objected strongly, and the family understood well enough when she told one of the English-speaking sisters how much he wanted (another 3JD/$4). This may seem like an insignificant amount when reading from afar, but such things feel equal to about $20 of buying power in this part of the world.

The sister gasped at the amount as the father shooed the driver away—if she has to take a taxi, it's 3JD, agreeing that we were correct to object.

So… wow—we're really way out here in the middle of nowhere… isolated in a small village of 44 families inside an expanse of desert, poised to have an experience that very, very few travelers to the Petra area get to walk away with…

Talal's family home

The living space on the ground floor where we were initially asked to place our bags.

The lunch that was offered to us shortly after arriving (around 3pm).

The isolated location of the Bedouin village of Al-Beidha that we're now living in.

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